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Researching The History Of Your Home

BY MICHAEL HOUSER, FROM ISSUE 27

If you have ever aspired to be a detective, here’s your chance. Investigating the history of your house will lead you to Historical Societies, Museums, Libraries, Courthouses, Title Companies and private collections. Researching the background of a house can give you insight into the customs and lifestyles of your predecessors. And if you’re planning to repair or remodel your bungalow, your research may provide information to guide design decisions.

Getting Started

The best place to begin researching the history of your bungalow or early- 20th-century home is on the property itself. Sometimes taking a photograph of your property can be a helpful way to focus on it more objectively. Take notes about the exterior and interior materials of the house, unusual architectural features, or any references to dates or names. Look at the smallest architectural details, such as windows, lighting and trim. All of these features may give you clues to the original built date or remodel dates. Careful examination of the grounds may reveal signs of previous structures or hardscape, like garages, paths or driveways.

Can you identify the style of your house, or does it seem to be a blend of different styles? There are hundreds of books about architecture that will help you learn more about the style and construction of your house. (Scroll to the bottom for suggested architectural guides that are available at libraries, bookstores or through us.) Is your home similar to others surrounding it, or does it stand out in size, style or age? Your analysis of the house and site alone may allow you to determine the era in which the house was built and whether it was part of a subdivision or designed to stand alone.

Note the proximity of your house to significant landmark buildings, including schools, churches and civic structures. By researching the significant landmark you may yield historic information about your house, such as finding-your home in the background of an early photograph of the landmark building.

And don’t forget to talk with your neighbors and previous owners. They may be able to give you valuable information about past owners of your house, and if you’re lucky, they might have old photographs of your bungalow. Be prepared to take notes or even record oral histories on tape, but bear in mind that memories may not be 100 percent accurate.

Where To Look.

The next step is to take advantage of your local historical resources. When conducting research, try calling ahead to find out whether or not information exists on your property. Whether calling or visiting, have pertinent information about your home available. This includes the property address, addition (or subdivision) name and block number, previous owners’  names, and any name by which the house may have been known. Note any special rules regarding using or removing material, and use extreme care when handling archival materials like original photos or manuscripts.

Resources to try include:

Title Companies - To find a precise construction date for your home you must conduct a title search. While this can be a daunting process at a county clerk’s office, you can save yourself hours of time by taking a trip to your local title company. All title companies have tract books that are open to the public for conducting research. Before you go you will need to know the name of the subdivision and where your home is located, including the lot and block number. This information can usually be obtained through your local planning department or assessor’s office.

Title company tract books are arranged by subdivision and are further divided by blocks within the subdivision. As properties are bought and sold, and mortgages are taken out, title companies record this information on an easy-to-use matrix. Starting at the date the subdivision was platted, each time any action is taken on an individual lot, the grantor (person selling the property) and grantee (person buying the property) names are recorded. Scan the numerous pages, arranged by date, for any action that is taken on your lot. Write down all of the inform ation to use at a later date, including the official book, volume and page number. This will tell you where the detailed individual transaction information can be found at your local county clerk’s office. If you have previously narrowed down your home’s origination date, you can often assume a structure was built when a large mortgage was taken out, thus pinpointing your bungalow’s exact built date.

Historical Societies and Local Museums – Armed with your list of ownership names, you can now find further information about each owner. Go to the nearest historical society or local museum, where you will find old maps, city directories, photographs and family histories. Census records are also good resources for background information on past owners.

Many historical societies and museums have large collections of photographs, which can be an invaluable research tool. Pictures of individual houses, main street scenes, and family and individual portraits will keep you busy for hours. Typically, many photos are not identified and some are even mismarked, so look carefully. Be sure to look beyond the main subject of the picture. You may find a photo of your house in the foreground of a picture highlighting the Fourth of July parade, or in the background of a baby picture taken across the street in your neighbor’s yard.
Mo st historical institutions have collections of early phone books called city directories. The most common versions were published by R.L. Polk & Company. These directories are your best source to find out more about the original occupants of your house. Polk directories list the owner’s name and occupation, as well as the address. Some years even indicate whether the occupant was the homeowner, or if it was a new listing. Keep in mind, however, that sometimes buildings were renumbered and street names changed. You can verify house numbers and street names by looking at original plat and Sanborn maps.

Once you have established an owner’s name, check the institution’s family files for additional information. You may find a complete history of the family or perhaps newspaper clippings about family members. And obituaries will give you a wealth of information about the background and activities of individuals.

For homes that were owned by prominent individuals, examining old newspapers may be an additional source of information. Many newspapers covered stories about the construction of large residences, and some papers even published a weekly listing of building permits. Because most early newspapers have never been thoroughly indexed, you should have a good idea of the built date in order to narrow your research.

Sanborn Maps – Be sure to ask your local historical society, museum, library or even your city planning department about any Sanborn Fire Insurance maps they may have on file. These are a wealth of information. The Sanborn Map Company traveled all over the country producing color-coded maps for insurance purposes. On these maps you will find building footprints, which can show you porch locations, additions and construction materials. Additionally, Sanborn maps have an address for each lot, which can be verified against current conditions, showing a possible change in a house number. Unfortunately, the company focused on larger communities and rarely compiled maps of then-rural areas.

Other Sources

In addition to these resources, you can also check with city and county offices for old building permits. These will tell you the cost and dates of the original construction and subsequent alterations. Finding old architectural plans and blueprints is particularly difficult, if not impossible. Most city and county agencies are not required to keep plans on file, but past owners, state archives and architectural and engineering firms are some possible locations for these records.

Passing Along Your History

Hopefully all of this good sleuthing results in solving the mystery of your home. At the very least, it is sure to give you a perspective on the history of your neighborhood and an even greater appreciation of your bungal ow. And recording your discoveries to pass along to your home’s next owner will increase the odds for pres erving its unique history for future old-house enthusiasts.

There are many reasons for conducting historic research, and many kinds of properties that are worthy of such efforts. Once you research your own home, a public building, a place of business, or even a landscape feat ure like a garden or park may present itself as the next site with a story to tell.

BOOKS TO GUIDE YOUR SEARCH

America’s Favorite Homes: Mail-Order
Catalogues as a Guide to Popular
Early 20th-Century Houses

by Schweitzer and Davis

Field Guide to American Houses
by McAlester and McAlester

Houses by Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company
by Stevenson and Jandi

The Comfortable House
by Gowans

What Style Is It? A Guide to American Architecture
by Poppeliers, Chambers and Schwartz

Michael Houser is a historic preservation planner for Deschutes County Ore. He holds a master’s degree in preservation from the Eastern Michigan University and an undergraduate degree from the University of Idaho. He and his wife Karena, live in one of Oregon’s more unusual homes, a 1937 Streamline Moderne bungalow, featured in Issue 21 Family Album.

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4 Responses to “Researching The History Of Your Home”

  1. Riverside Bungalow Owner says:

    This was a wonderful article, and gave lots of tips to get started. However, I wasn’t able to get very far because my home existed before the subdivision was platted, so there is no original lot number to look-up. Also, the street names and numbers were constantly changing during the 1920′s, which I’ve tracked through old Polk’s directories. I checked with the county for the original building permit, but it’s apparently in deep storage, and they will charge me hundreds of dollars for a search, which may or may not be fruitful. I’ve spent countless hours combing through local newspapers and old maps, and I’ve even found blueprints for a couple of my neighbors, but so far no luck with my house.

    Does anyone out there have any other information they can add to this article? Thanks!

  2. room 2 roof says:

    I think finding the history of your home is a fun venture. We have alot of historic homes in the charlotte nc area and to know who built it, when it was built, who lived there and what companies manufactured the materials is interesting to me. I do alot of roofing and remodeling of historic homes and often see markings on joists and framing, I uncover original wallpaper, roofing shingles, tile and many other original details that should have been restored.

  3. Architect says:

    You would not believe how helpful city and county records were in finding the history of my house. They even had contact information to a man who was selling old neighborhood photos that dated back to the 20s and 30s. However, in the case of my neighbors home, it is older than the public record here, and there is not much he could dig up on it.

  4. Sears Rosita Owner says:

    Great tips! I was fortunate to get a jump-start on my house’s history because older locals remember that it was built by the parents of our town’s most famous son, a US Senator. I’ve found the father’s name inscribed in a concrete step, and on a 1942 electrical permit. I’ve also heard anecdotes that the house was moved here intact from a defunct mining camp 30 miles away, but during reconstruction I was able to determine that it had in fact been built on-site using many salvaged materials, probably from that mining camp. Now I’d like to fill the gap between the original owner and the one I bought it from, so I appreciate your suggestions on how to research.

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